MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Two-time candidate Kathy Peterson is challenging incumbent Jeremy Oden in a financially lopsided race for the Republican nomination for a seat on Alabama's utility regulatory board.
Oden has collected more than $350,000 in campaign donations for Place 1 on the Public Service Commission and lined up a lengthy list of endorsements from business groups, including the Alabama Farmer Federation, Alabama Realtors and Alabama Retail Association.
But Oden, a former bank vice president and state representative from Eva, has not run for the PSC before. He was appointed by Gov. Robert Bentley to fill a vacancy on the commission in December 2012 and, by his own admission, his name recognition is not high. That's why he using the money he's raised to run a humorous TV ad where one voter after another can't seem to get his name right.
On his blog, he writes that voters confuse the PSC with other organizations, like the BCS or PBS, even though it has nothing to do with college football or TV programming.
"The most frustrating thing to me is the importance of this position to industry and the citizens of the state, yet we are one of the least known public entities," Oden said.
Peterson, a retired businesswoman from Hoover, is making her second bid for the commission after finishing last among three candidates in the Republican primary for PSC president in 2012. Peterson has largely financed her new campaign with a $60,000 personal loan.
Like Oden, she said the PSC is not a concern for most voters. "When you start talking to the general public, they don't know what the issues are," she said.
During the last year, the PSC has drawn more attention than normal by lowering rates for Mobile Gas and Alabama Gas and setting up a new rate design for Alabama Power.
"I have worked tirelessly to ensure that Alabama's energy production remain both efficient and affordable," Oden said.
Peterson, 63, said the rates weren't lowered enough and she described Oden as a "yes man" for utilities. She said her advocacy of lower utility rates makes her such a threat to Oden that special interests who support the status quo tried to get her out of the race.
She released emails showing that Birmingham media consultant Bob Lochamy offered her a $6,000-a-month job with an advocacy group he was planning to start called the Stand Up for Alabama Coalition, but the one condition was she had to drop out of the PSC race.
"If they can buy this office, then they can continue to buy it from now on," she said.
"It's pretty paranoid to say something like that," Lochamy said.
He said he made a legitimate offer for a job that would last two or three years, and it made no sense for Peterson to be the full-time spokeswoman for the group if she were also running for public office.
Peterson's husband, Dale, is also seeking statewide office. He's one of four candidates in the Republican primary for state auditor.
Both candidates for PSC Place 1 are saying they will use the position to speak out against Environmental Protection Agency regulations and what they call "President Obama's War on Coal," even though the PSC is not Alabama's environmental agency.
Coal mining in Alabama provides 4,500 jobs and produces more than 19 million tons per year, but miners are worried about their future as utilities convert coal-fired power plants, including some in Alabama, to use natural gas.
Oden, 45, said he's already taking action by being a member of several national organizations that send recommendations to the president and Congress. He's also picked up an endorsement by the Alabama Coal Association for speaking out against regulations the industry says are forcing coal-fired generating plants to switch to other fuels.
"This has a direct effect on rates in Alabama. My job at the PSC is to allow the production of energy at the lowest, cheapest and the most reliable process," Oden said.
Peterson said she would sue the EPA in Alabama courts, even though it is a federal agency. She said the legal approach might not work, but it would buy time to try to change views in Washington. "We have to take them to court with our judges and our juries and throw up roadblocks to stop them," she said.
The winner of the Republican primary June 3 does not face Democratic opposition in the general election Nov. 4.